Eight years ago today, America lost Mortimer Adler. Mortimer Adler* challenged the world to lead a happy life based upon some understanding of the Great Ideas passed on to all of us through the history of human thought.
εὐδαιμονία -EuDaimonia ( which I can never, ever pronounce correctly) comes from two Greek words: Eu -Good,or well-being and Daimon - a person's total spirit or place in the world.
This weekend, the world snoops into the death of Michael Jackson, a terminally unhappy fifty year old pop-singer from Gary, Indiana. The late Mr. Jackson's ability to garner 98% of all news coverage is miraculous. MSNBC will report on the white smoke billowing from Neverland, or whatever Jackson Family compound not under receivership, when a new King of Pop is elected. Mortimer Adler was happy man. He was surrounded by the good works of life -in theory,output and practice.
Leading a happy life is hard work. There are no 'Atta-Boy's' for doing your job, being a good and decent citizen, loving,caring and providing for your children, living up to your obligations and making a difference while your walk on this earth.
We mistake 'enjoyment' for happiness. Michael Jackson and the attention his very unhappy life exuded is testimony to just that.
Mortimer Adler welded the Testaments of our Western Culture - he was born Jewish and died with the last rites of Roman Catholic Church. What brought Mr. Adler to the New Testament seems to have been his life-long study of a Pagan -Aristotle. From Aristotle, Adler employed the Jewish scholar Maimonides and Muslim Averroes to understand St. Thomas Aquinas. Adler was the greatest Aquinas Scholar of our time.
Rolling through the ages of thought, Adler dismissed the radical Hegelian paganism of the 19th Century, which is the basis for Progressive thought in America, forged by John Dewey and bowdlerized by political activists and tin-horn academics.
This Hegelian nonsense dismisses piety and humility in thought. It makes the individual God - it is what Bertrand Russell (an atheist by the way) called our 'Cosmic Impiety).
Respect for the gods, God, Great Ideas and better persons than ourselves is piety. Not a mealy-mouthed, pharisaic bead rattling show-off, but a person dedicated to qualities of virtue and obligation. Respect in America is as disposable as a plastic razor bought at Dollar Bill's.
Piety, which teaches how to respect ourselves, is what allows a person to be 'happy' - piety, virtue and dignity are what gives a person Authority; not alphabets after your name, scoops of cash, or the most toys, or the most ink.
Mortimer Adler reminded us that humility leads to authority.
Here are two American authorities on Mortimer J. Adler - in testimonies to Adler's welding of Man's Testament with God, given at his funeral service in St. Chrysostom Church in 2001.
Charles Van Doren
I met Mortimer for the first time more than seventy-five
years ago. I know the place and date exactly: Lennox Hill
Hospital, New York City, February 14, 1926. Mortimer
was a little over twenty-five years old. I was two—two days,
that is. My father and Mortimer were colleagues at Columbia,
leading a great-books seminar together. Dad had
brought Mortimer to see his first born, and Mortimer entertained me by neologizing. To neologize is to speak employing
words that you make up as you go along. The
meaning is not important; it is the sound that counts. I
loved the sound of Mortimer’s voice then, and I never
ceased to do so. At that time he spoke too fast for most
people to understand him, unless they paid very special attention,
which many people do not like to have to do.
Later, he slowed down and spoke in short, simple, direct
sentences—and wrote them too. The mellifluousness that
had charmed me as a two-day-old then began to charm
everyone else. What a speaker he was. You never had any
doubt what he was saying. But, if you disagreed, it was because
you did not quite understand. This was also true of
his books. With a single exception, every book that he
wrote after his sixtieth birthday was distinct and clear, its
language perfectly conformed to its meaning. As a reward,
almost every book was a best seller (comparatively speaking,
no bodice ripper he).
And what a teacher, too. In his autobiography, he wrote
about what he had learned from my father about leading a
seminar. And in every one of the more than two hundred
seminars Mortimer and I led together over thirty years in
Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other places, I
always learned something important about something important—
as his friend Arthur Ruben used to say.
When I was a child, Mortimer astounded and fascinated
me. He would visit us, whenever he came to New York on
business—always with an agenda in hand of items to discuss.
I thought that was astonishing. We visited him at
Stone Pond in New Hampshire, and I was again astonished,
to see him happily splashing about with water wings
above his head, like Mickey Mouse ears. He never sneezed
just once, always three times, never more, never less. And
when I learned about his work with the Hayes Office,
which among other things ordained that a movie actress
could not show her legs more than a few inches above the
knee, and especially not the inside of her thighs, I was kerflummoxed.
(That’s not a neologism.) Since the inside of a
woman’s thigh was at time (I was thirteen) a matter of
enormous interest, I envied Mortimer. I imagined that he
had to check out all those beautiful thighs and make sure
they were not breaking the rules.
And then there came the time when I fell down, face down
in the mud, and he picked me up, brushed me off, and gave
me a job. It was the best kind of job: as he described it, one
you would do anyway, if you did not need the money. And
I did it for thirty years. First we worked together making
books for Encyclopædia Britannica. Then I, and many others,
helped him to design and edit the greatest encyclopedia
the world has ever seen. It has fallen on bad days, but it
will rise again and outlive us all—just as Mortimer’s philosophical
work will do.
I remember the first seminar we led together, nearly forty
years ago. The text was Plato’s dialogue, The Sophist. I had
read it twice or three times and struggled to get the point. It
could not be what it seemed to be. But Mortimer helped us
all to understand it was. The true sophist, Plato is saying,
cannot be trapped—if he is willing to say anything whatsoever
to win the argument. If he wants to win at all costs
and does not care what is true, and if he is adept at fending
off the truth when it is presented, the sophist will triumph,
and you will fail. I asked Mortimer after the seminar
whether he agreed. “Yes,” he said, surprisingly, “Plato is
right.” But he believed (and I do to) that this is the tragedy
of intellect. In other words, truth must be fought for, even
though one may not be able to win. Mortimer fought for
the truth all of his life, although he believed in the end that
he had been defeated. We tried to persuade him that this
was not so, but we failed. Time, merciless and remorseless,
betrayed him—as eventually it betrays us all.
And now, having said that, I want to praise him. As another
man, a great general, praised another philosopher,
long ago. The general compared that other philosopher to a
satyr. (And, indeed, there was a certain rotundity of body
and an amused, ironic look on Mortimer’s face most of the
4ime.) That general said that that other philosopher was like
Marsyas, the great flute player who challenged Apollo, and
whose melodies charmed all who heard them. But the general
said that this philosopher produced the same effect
with his words only, and did not require a flute. “When we
hear any other speaker,” the general said, addressing his
friend, “His words produce absolutely no effect on us, or
not much. Whereas, the mere fragment of you and your
words, even at second hand, and however imperfectly reported,
amaze and possess every man and woman and
make them confess that they ought not to live as they do.
Your words seem simple when we first hear them,” the
general said, “and not worthy or appropriate for their matter,
and are even laughed at, because you are always repeating
the same thing, in the same words. But when we look
within those words,” the general said to that other philosopher,
his friend, “We find that they are the only words that
have a meaning in them, abounding in fair images of virtue
and of the widest comprehension, or rather extending to
the whole duty of a good and honorable man.” Thus did
Alcibiades praise Socrates, Mortimer, and thus do I praise
you. Your words, simple, direct, and clear, still tell us we
ought not to live as we do and describe the whole duty of a
good and honorable man.
I will not end with Plato, who, although he may have
started Mortimer on the road to philosophy, did not accompany
him for long. Mortimer would refute me is I did
not mention his nearly lifelong admiration for Plato’s famous
pupil. Many times he told me, as I imagine he told
you, that he hoped to meet Aristotle in the afterlife, so he
correct his errors—and also have the opportunity to talk
about all the most important things with a man who knew,
as Mortimer did, what they were and why they were important.
Mortimer and I agreed, when St. Christopher was struck
from the list of proper saints, that the action, although
probably correct, was a pity. I myself have stubbornly per5
sisted in addressing the benevolent giant every day of my
life. You know the gentle, little prayer:
St. Christopher be my guide,
In my most need,
Go by my side.
I have modified it in various ways over the years, and I offer
you another modification now:
St. Christopher, be Mortimer’s guide,
and Aristotle’s too,
In their most need.
If they are wandering in some
dark, cold, and lonely place
and cannot find one another,
Bring them together,
Join their hands,
Shed warmth and light upon them.
Go by their side
And from time to time,
Let Thomas Aquinas come for lunch.
Mortimer, we miss you, and we need your help. We all pursue
happiness, but we do not know what it is or how to
find it. We need you to remind us that happiness is not a
moment of ecstasy or a feeling of contentment that can
come and go. Instead, happiness is the product of a whole
life—a life lived in accordance with the two kinds of virtue:
intellectual and moral. We have to use our minds and not
waste them. And we have to acquire the habit of desiring
the right things, the things we really need and are good for
us, not the wrong things, which are bad for us and for everybody
else. In addition to all that, we need to be lucky—in
our country, in our friends, and in our loves. You were
lucky in all these, dear friend, and therefore we can conclude
that yours was a happy life. It is our great loss, not
yours, that it had to end.
Peter NortonPast President and CEO,
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
I spent something over thirty years with The Encyclopædia
Britannica, and, of course, in that time I met many
very intelligent, very smart, very well-read intellectuals
and people generally. Unfortunately, I fell into none of
those categories. So, when I first knew that I was going to
meet Mortimer Adler, back in London in the early Sixties, I
was decidedly nervous. In fact, the feeling I really had was
one of great awe. I spent all my time trying to talk in sentences
as short as possible, so that he would not work out
quite what a nitwit was running the London company. But
we got on really quite well, and Mortimer, of course, as always,
was charming. Here was a man who had not just read
but had written more books—and was still writing at that
stage—than a lot of people have read in their lives. Now,
that’s not Britannica people, of course, because we had all
been weaned on How to Read a Book, and Mortimer had
made sure we all read the great books of the Western
world, to keep up with it. Consequently, I had quite a lot to
be nervous about.
But I am not going to talk about what Mortimer achieved,
and what he did. I am sure the others who follow me will
do that much better than I can. But I would like to talk a
little while about a Mortimer that I knew. In the early Seventies,
after I had relocated to the United States, at one of
Britannica’s international functions in Hawaii—we always
chose the best places to have our functions—sin attacked
me. In the course of an afternoon session, when I should
have been working with everybody else, I snuck out of the
meeting because there was the allure of a great and wonderful
ice-cream parlor. And I went down to the ice-cream
parlor, and I crept in very quietly to make sure there was
nobody there. And it was empty—except in the far corner
there was one very large ice-cream and chocolate concoc-
tion, out from behind which came a wonderful, very large,
ear-splitting grin on this wonderful, elfin-like face. And that
was when I met the other Mortimer.
As the years passed, Mortimer and I managed to commit all
sorts of terrible sins of gluttony, in all sorts of different
parts of the world, in ice-cream parlors and candy shops
and places like that. And what I came to find out was that
behind this austere intellectual facade was a fun-loving, excitable,
and very happy, life-loving little boy. This was the
little boy who, after having some problems in his youth
with swimming, at an age when most people had given up
swimming, succumbed to the challenge of a great marathon
swimming match at another Britannica meeting. He agreed
that he would do this, and he not only took on this challenge,
but he won it in great style and was triumphant.
(Now I must point out that the pool he swam in was approximately
fifteen feet long, and it was not more than
three feet deep, and there were at least twenty people ready
to jump in to save him if anything happened). At the end of
the course there was a bottle of champagne for the winner,
and that, of course, was the sort of incentive that Mortimer
This was the Mortimer who not only liked to joke but
could take a joke when it was aimed at him. This was the
Mortimer who could walk with crowds and talk with kings,
and, although I cannot talk about his virtue, I can absolutely
guaranty that he never lost that common touch, that
common touch that made so many people love him, and
why so many people are here today who miss him. I shall
miss my young friend. But I have one remaining regret. I
have no doubt that, at this particular moment, Mortimer
and his God are in very deep discussions, which I would
love to be able to hear. I only hope that God is up to it.
Happy man! Thanks to Max Weissmann of the Center for the Study of Great Ideas
* Mortimer J. Adler dropped out of school at the age of fourteen (14).